The Church of Scotland and its Current Challenges

Dear Sisters and Dear Brothers,

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Boreland

In Autumn 2019, as part of our inter-church cooperation, the ECCB sent me to the town of Lockerbie in Scotland, where I am currently working as minister of the Church of Scotland. I would like to stay here with my family until August 2021 – that is, if the COVID-19 outbreak lets us.

The Church of Scotland was one of the most significant powers in local society for many centuries. The position of the church used to be similar to that of the Catholic church in our country, shaping the basic attitudes of the vast majority of Scotland’s population. It was not until the late 20th century and, more visibly, the beginning of the 21st, that the church began to be politely pushed out of public life – starting with politics, through schooling and education, public institutions, all the way to funerals and weddings: nowadays, all these areas can do without the “smart talks” of a minister or the space of the church. Most of the people in Scotland today, including those who went to Sunday school, do not see the church as a living community, but as an honourable institution that deals with the past, celebrates various ancient anniversaries and deaths… that is, an institution that has nothing to offer to their personal lives and current problems. Sound familiar?

In essence, the Church of Scotland is dealing with the same type of problems as the ECCB, only the scale is much larger. A lack of ministers, a lack of funds and, which comes hand in hand, a rapidly decreasing number of churchgoers. Almost every little village has a church, but very few of them have a strong enough community to be able to properly use and maintain the church buildings, which are getting old and often starting to fall into disrepair.

It must be said, however, that the Church of Scotland has faced these challenges very bravely. Last year, the General assembly decided on a radical restructuring of the church (joining several congregations and even Presbyteries in one, restructuring of the central church office, etc.). Last year, the General Assembly decided that the 46 local and two foreign Presbyteries are going to transformed into only 13 altogether (!).

The Faith Impact Forum, which was created from the former Church and Society and World Mission councils, deals not only with overseas mission, but also prepares programmes with the aim of reviving and rejuvenating the church’s congregations.

To also support the restructuring of the church “from the bottom”, the Church of Scotland provides several supportive and educational activities. Among them was an inspirational programme called Future Focus, which was basically a discussion of the participants, only slightly moderated by a couple of inquisitive questions posed by the facilitator. The whole point of the programme is that the individual congregations have a chance to formulate what it is they want to offer to their neighbours. Another challenge that the church has decided to tackle is Christianity in the mass media jungle and in the flood of electronic information. It is quite encouraging to see that even during these difficult times, there are congregations that are on the rise; congregations that are able to meet the needs, the possibilities and the culture that today’s people are seeking. For example, by adjusting the worship spaces, incorporating the use of modern technologies during Sunday services, or by using music that is closer to the hearts of the majority of today’s population. An example of a very popular congregation is one in Glasgow, which reconstructed an abandoned church and changed it into a café with a space for worship. People come here to have coffee and doughnuts, and they are glad to listen to a sermon, a discussion or some music while they’re there. Often, they take part in the worship, or they decide to support one of the many social activities of the Church.

Right now, I am enjoying the warmth of the Victorian-era manse, the Sabine hurricane has finally left and so have its sequels which broke a tree in our garden yesterday during the night. I want to share with you my impressions from the past six months here.

Lockerbie is a world-famous town, perhaps one of the most famous small towns in the world. Sadly this is because on the 21st of December 12, 1988 (because of Lybian terrorists, Czech semtex and a significant delay), a PANAM plane with 250 passengers on board exploded directly above the town. Many of the passengers were students that were returning home for Christmas. The largest fragment of the plane fell approximately 300 m from the manse, destroyed several houses and killed another eleven people. The memories of this event are still very much alive in Lockerbie and sooner or later, this becomes the conversation topic of almost every pastoral visit I pay to the local people.

„My congregation“, Dryfesdale, Hutton and Corrie, is not world-famous. It is only known to the inhabitants of Lockerbie and its close surroundings, and even those have a rather vague idea of its existence. Services are held every Sunday; every second and fourth Sunday in the month, they are also held in Boreland, which is a little village about 12 km from Lockerbie, originally an independent congregation that affiliated with the larger one in Lockerbie around 30 years ago – due to a lack of members and funds. The main Sunday services are usually attended by approx. 70 people, the ones in Boreland are usually attended by about 20 of the most faithful members, unless there is heavy snowfall in the hills or the roads get flooded by water.

The church in Dryfesdale (in the valley of the river Dryfe) is located in the middle of the town and at the same time in the middle of an old cemetery. Funerals are the most common type of church service here. I had more funerals in the course of the past month here than at home in Orlová, Czech Rep., during the last five years.

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Dryfesdale Church, Lockerbie

Apart from Sunday services and funerals, many other events take place at our church or across the street at the Church Hall. The spaces are used by various groups belonging to the congregation – for example the “Guild” woman’s association, or just a group of friends who meet to play board games and quizzes, but more importantly, to dance to Scottish folk music, played by two accordion players and a violinist. The average age of the musicians is 85, that of the dancers might be even higher, but that couldn’t possibly spoil the fun. It’s also worth mentioning that before Christmas, the church spaces are always filled with school children, from kindergarten to secondary school students, for a couple of days.

It also shouldn’t be forgotten that the Church of Scotland has traditionally been the provider of a large variety of social projects – from those supporting missionary organisations to programmes helping the homeless, single mothers, terminally ill cancer patients… In general, the Scottish mentality is definitely not greedy; on the contrary, people are very generous and they have ingenious ideas on coming up with ways to support those who need help, and have a good time while doing it.

Staying here with the protestants of Scotland is a wonderful adventure and a great source of inspiration which I am very grateful for. I hope the readers of this article are able to breathe in some of the encouragement that we’ve been experiencing here! Peace be with us all!

Štěpán Janča